Small Donors

The media is once again exhibiting its ignorance in reporting the story of the Republicans alleging that Obama’s campaign is not reporting small donors’ identities. They don’t understand the difference between reporting requirements and the data that gets collected about donors.

I have been doing database application programming for a political fundraising organization since 2000, and the fact is that even though they are not required to *report* donors under $200, they still *track* all the donations and have all the information. This means that if someone donates $100 three times, there will be a record for that person with three contributions attached. The campaign will know that this person has donated $300 total even though no single campaign filing will reveal the identity of this donor.

The reason why is that campaigns have to track all donations from all donors to be sure that the donors don’t exceed the contribution limits. In other words, if someone gives $100 and then tries to write a check for $2300, it will have to be rejected (and the campaign would ask for a check for $2200). The campaigns know this because they record the data in that manner precisely because they need to know who is bumping up against the contribution limits.

Now, I guess it’s possible that some campaigns use software that is not as well-written as my client’s (I was brought in to revise an existing application, and the contribution limit checking was already in place, though the sophistication of the process has been vastly improved since I took it over) and that the software they are using makes no attempt to match an incoming contribution to a donor that already exists in their database of contributors. And certainly online credit card contributions certainly make this harder to track.

But, nonetheless, these campaigns don’t *want* to accept contributions that exceed the limits because it just isn’t worth it:

  1. There can be fines and penalties for exceeding contribution limits.
  2. Violations of contribution limits require a lot of administrative work to refund the contributions when they are discovered.
  3. Once the violation is corrected, the campaign then has to create amended filings that reflect the refunds.
  4. If those violations get reported to the public, it can cause a huge political scandal.

When I first started working on this project, I had read a lot about campaign contribution shenanigans and thought the campaigns were really dirty, and trying to game the system. But once I saw it from the inside, and realized exactly how much major campaigns rely on volunteers for help in processing the huge volume of $$$ that can come in during the last few weeks of a campaign, I realized that honest mistakes are a natural consequence of the process. Human error is often the cause — a transposed pair of letters in the data entry of a person’s name can cause a match with a previous donor record to be missed (and don’t think there is no check on loose matches — there’s a whole bunch of code in the lookup process that tries to find the closest record in the event of a non-exact match on name).

In short, what I realized was that these organizations are *never* doing this on purpose, because the cost would just not be worth it at all. And most of the cost is not in the fines or adminstrative costs, but in the political fallout that comes from the publicity when problems are discovered and reported in the media.

So, I really think this is just another example of trumped-up Republican hysteria. And the only reason the Republicans don’t have exactly the same problem is because they are so damned unattractive to voters that they just aren’t getting the myriad small donors that Obama is.